Gene Kelly’s performances were a direct source of reference for the animators on ‘Vivo’

Also, how to animate a kinkajou, a snake and 2D-looking sequences in 3D.

In this next piece of coverage on Sony Animation and Netflix’s Vivo, directed by Kirk DeMicco, befores & afters chats to Sony Pictures Imageworks animation supervisor Kevin Webb.

Webb lays out the inspiration for the look and feel of much of the character animation in the film (hint: it’s Gene Kelly), as well as how some of the human and animal animation was crafted. Plus he dives into the more stylized side of the work, especially the musical sequences that relied on both 2D line-work combined with 3D.

b&a: What would say is the ‘style’ of animation in Vivo?

Kevin Webb: The filmmakers wanted to have an homage to old style musicals. They wanted the set pieces of the world to feel like they were hand painted by matte painters and hand built. They wanted this tactile quality to the world. As well as combining that with these really graphic designs for these characters, like Andrés and Gabi. They’re very striking designs. We weren’t going for realism at any point in this film. So it kind of opened the doors to play a little bit stylistically.

Some of the early conversations that we were having were about, how can we bring this old style musical quality to the style of animation? I started watching a bunch of old MGM musicals and stuff, lots of Fred Astaire, lots of Gene Kelly and things like that and pulling reference. Actually, that was some of the earlier reference too for Vivo, was looking at some Gene Kelly footage and trying to put that onto his character to see how it fits. Sometimes that’s what you just have to do is just try things out. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

One of the scenes that I used to show every animator who joined the show was this opening scene of An American in Paris, and Gene Kelly’s waking up in his apartment. It’s very musically timed. It’s not a musical sequence of the film, but the whole moment of him waking up in the apartment is very musically timed. It’s kind of cartoony too. It’s really played very broadly. It’s played very presentationally. What I used to say is, it’s played to the back row. He wakes up and he does this thing where it’s just a total cartoon stretch and he blinks his eyes open in a very cartoony pattern and he gets up and he’s not tired at all because that wouldn’t be very appealing and he just kind of Springs to life and he moves through his apartment, with this dancer quality to him and he started setting up his apartment for the day, putting his bed away, pulling on a table, and he’s using his feet and he’s using his hands.

There’s this quality to the scene that had this charm to it, it had this nostalgia, and Gene Kelly was just such a fantastic performer back in the day that he just commanded so much appeal in his performances and the way you moved. So I tried to bring a little bit of that flavor to Vivo specifically, and then also just a little bit of that appeal to the entire world when we were in any sequences in Havana, in Cuba.

We had this idea—we wanted to do an evolution of style through the film. Not something overt. It was meant to be subtle so that when we’re in Havana, Cuba, it was meant to have this old, charming nostalgia to the quality of the way of all characters move, not just Vivo, but on Vivo, Andres, and the world around them, so it felt like this choreographed place.

And then when Vivo gets ripped out of that world and goes on this adventure, we started to turn the dial and go into a little bit more of what I would consider more of a modern style animation. Like I said, it’s not meant to be obvious or overt. It’s really more in the lens and how you make those choices, like acting choices. You’re not being as presentational. You’re not being necessarily as broad in your acting choices. So the way Gabi’s mom would act would be different than someone in Havana would act. Things like that.

We learned along the way, how much animal versus how much human to put in Vivo. In the beginning I think we were skewing towards more Gene Kelly, so he was on two legs a lot. And we started to look at the film and we were getting notes from some of the executives and people who are seeing it—‘We think Vivo should be more animalistic…’ So we started to try to find where we could thread that needle and when he was going to be animalistic and when he was going to be on two legs. So that was one of the big discussions that happened throughout the whole film is how much of that to put in when and where, and the musical sequences really are excuses to bring out the full performer character of Vivo.

b&a: I guess just on that, it sounds like an obvious question, but did you look to actual kinkajou reference for Vivo himself?

Kevin Webb: We looked up a lot of stuff for them, but because they’re not really a known entity in people’s minds, certain specificities that were kinkajou and kinkajou-only might come off as odd and make people do a little double-take while they’re watching the film.

So, apparently this is a thing that I read about kinkajous is they can actually turn their elbows backwards and move their back legs in a very weird way. And we looked at that and we’re like, should we try that? We tried it on a shot. That just looks kind of creepy. So maybe we don’t do that.

b&a: I wish you’d put that in!

Kevin Webb: I know, I know. But they have the opposable tail that they’re able to do a lot of things with and the way that their hands grip certain tree branches. So whenever Vivo was acting animalistic, we tried to lean into a little bit of that. He’s kind of a combination between a kinkajou, a raccoon, a monkey. We took attributes of animals that I think people might recognize. We put attributes of a dog in him when he’s listening, he tilts his ear. We tried to sprinkle in some stuff that was specific to them. And then also just use that universal language of animal movement that I think audiences are more able to decipher as storytelling.

b&a: What about human characters, as in normal human characters. Gabi is interesting. Where does that performance come from? I mean, clearly from the voice actor, but where else does it come from?

Kevin Webb: Well again, the same thing that we would do with Vivo, you start looking up reference. You try to find characters around that same age, or maybe have that same energy level. Little Miss Sunshine, the girl from that is fantastic. But honestly, Gabi was one of those things in the movie that just kind of clicked into place kind of easily. I think all the credit to Ynairaly Simo her voice is so incredible and it has so much authenticity to it.

Vivo and Gabi.

I find this happens sometimes in other films where you get a child actor and they’re too well-trained, and they have that child actor quality about them. Whereas Ynairaly was just so raw and pure and she sounded like an excitable 11 to 12 year old. She just has this quality of her voice too. And she would step on her own words in a really adorable way that added this nice texture to her performances. There was so much to pull from.

Then, her character design itself is so informative of who she is. She wears herself totally on the outside. When you look at her, it just kind of snaps into place as to like, ‘Oh, I can totally picture how this girl moves.’ And then once you have a bunch of animators joining the show too, also just bringing in their own ideas and really we just kind of came up with a language for Gabi that we would talk about like, ‘Oh, what’s the Gabi-fication version of doing that? How do we Gabi-fy this move, or how do we do that?’ That’s the type of words that we would use when we were talking about performances and how to make it specifically in tune for her.

Out of all the characters in the film, we probably looked to outside reference the least for her because there was something that was so just informative about Ynairaly’s voice, and then also the character design filled in those gaps. And then after that, it was just about having fun and trying to bring as much entertainment value and uniqueness to her character.

b&a: Is there vidref of animators working from home doing vidref for Gabi. Does that exist? Is that a thing?

Kevin Webb: We have it. There was a tonne of it. Almost everyone on the film got a chance to animate her, because she’s in the film so much. There’s a lot of Gabi ‘actors’ out there that were from their living rooms or elsewhere. There’s the scene of her on the bike with Vivo in the basket. One of our animators built this little rig at home and he was pretending he was on a bike but it was his couch and his acting on Gabi’s face was fantastic. Made for a lot of fun reviews when you’re looking at all that reference.

b&a: That’s awesome. What about Andrés as a different character? You obviously don’t see him much, but he had to have a different feel, an exuberance, but also an older man.

Kevin Webb: Yeah, he was one of the funnest challenges and puzzles to put together, I think. Like you said, I think you hit the nail on the head there: we wanted to have this vibrancy and life to him. He’s full of life and he’s this brightness in the scenes that he’s in. He’s this beacon of positivity and he’s energetic, but the same times he’s very old. We wanted to never make him feel frail or too old. We never wanted to draw an obvious amount of attention to that. But at the same time, obviously you can’t make them look too young, you can’t make him too spry, or else it breaks the illusion that we’re trying to create with this character.

Vivo and Andreas.

So we looked at a lot of reference. There was the great scene in the latest Mary Poppins film where Dick van Dyke pops up on the table and starts dancing and he’s 90 something years old and he actually did that on set. So it’s somebody who’s very well-trained and very talented, but also old. You kind of get the impression of what somebody at that age would be able to do physically and still make it look entertaining and make it look good.

And there’s another great clip of Fred Astaire at the Oscars in the 70s, and he’s doing a bit with somebody on stage. They’re like, ‘So Fred, why don’t you dance anymore?’ He’s like, ‘Well, I’m just getting a little old, so I can’t do things this,’ and then he’d bust out a little tap sequence. And he’s like, ‘And I can’t do stuff like this,’ and he would bust out another little tap sequence. He was older in those clips, but you could tell the talent was still there, the showmanship was still there, the charisma was still there.

But, he knew his limitations, so he could work within that economy of movement in a unique way. So we tried to look at that stuff for Andrés and make sure that he’s still talented, he’s still got it, he still can move, but he knows his limitations. He’s not going to be doing backflips in this town square. He knows what he’s capable of, and it’s still impressive because he’s technically still very talented. So we tried to kind of walk that line of not limiting him too much, but then also being aware of where those limitations do exist for him. And then just having fun with him with his cane and stuff. We also had a choreographer who was hired for the film to help put together a lot of these dance sequences. So we got some reference from him for Andrés and Vivo, too.

b&a: Were there any characters, I’m thinking maybe more of the animal ones, that needed any kind of special animation rigging that was maybe more out of the box than usual?

Kevin Webb: Yeah, Lutador definitely had his challenges. Anytime you do a snake in an animated film, it’s all about these elegant curves and twists and keeping things flowing, and that’s how they’re typically rigged and designed. But we had this idea, or Joe Moshier had these great drawings of Lutador and using these geometric shapes and he’s got these hard angles, but at the same time, he’s got this armor plating on him with fractal diamonds on his back. So everything’s meant to look rigid, but at the same time, he still needs to move like a snake, so there’s just antithesis of rigidity and the movement of a snake that needed to somehow come together.

Some of it is purely just designing it to camera and not showing where the the magic trick is happening. The rigging team rigged the character in a way that you typically would a snake, but added these extra controls to allow us to get these really harsh angles. And then we had even more controls to actually control all the armor plating on his back and those diamond fractals on his back. Then FX would come in after us, and they would populate all those hard scales on the belly of the snake, and then also repopulate all the armor pieces on the back. They were slightly flexible, they were meant to have some give, and then also only the skin in between those things would they actually be really extra pliable. We had to create this creature that was very flexible, but also at the same time had all these rigid pieces that would constantly butt into each other and crash and create all these problems. He was a big challenge.

And then I think maybe after that, maybe the spoonbills, Dancarino and Valentino, were challenging too. Just the amount of feathers and how the wings had to fold into these tiny little things, and then they would have to expand out and articulate like hands, and then with all the feather work on top of that was always was a big challenge for us too.

b&a: Was there one particular shot or sequence that ended up being particularly tricky or challenging that maybe you thought wasn’t going to be? Or one that stood out more than the other?

Kevin Webb: There’s the opening number of the movie, which is the huge dance sequence and all the choreography. We kind of knew that was going to be an absolute beast of a sequence, and it turned out to be a beast and a half of a thing. But I think the most challenging sequence in the film was probably the Mambo cabana sequence with all the line work that we did and making it look it was more of a 2D animated style.

It’s one of those ones, to make it look effortless, it took an enormous amount of work and animation in particular, my department, ended up taking the brunt of the work for that, because we had to do the work of different departments as we were doing it. So we animated all the characters in there in 3D, but we had these flat shaded characters. So we’d animate them in 3D software that we’re used to, and we would always be designing it as if it were going to be 2D. So we’d design everything to camera.

And then we would animate the clothing by hand over top. Typically we would go to a cloth and hair department would simulate it, but we didn’t want simulated cloth on that because we wanted to have this papercraft handcrafted feel. We wanted those imperfections that you get with hand drawn animation. So the jitters, the little sizzles that you get on line work, we wanted to try to do that. Computers are very good at making things look perfect, but it was the thing that we did not want to do with that. We wanted to make it look like every frame was crafted by someone’s hand, and we wanted to showcase the imperfections and showcase the artist’s hand in every shot, and we also wanted to make the line work look a certain way. We borrowed a lot of the shape language from Joe Moshier’s style of drawing. He’s got these very harsh, energetic lines that he would slash into his character designs. So we tried to bring that quality to the characters.

So, we would animate the cloth by hand. And then we’d go back and we’d actually augment the entire image with more line work over top, which is similar to some of the stuff we were doing in Spider-Verse, but with many more lines on each frame. We were actually redrawing the character over the top with line work. So we’d augment our 3D character with a 2D drawing over the top plus hand-animate the cloth over top of that.

It ended up only being three minutes of footage in the film, but it took an enormous amount of time. And we knew going in, we knew it was going to be challenging. What did catch us off guard was just the sheer amount of time it would take for each artist to complete one of those shots just because they had to do so much work for each frame. Each frame was really a labour of love in those sequences, but I think it turned out beautifully. It’s one of my favorite sequences in the movie.

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